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‘Hometown hero’ Robson is new ASO music director

by Eric E. Harrison | June 8, 2023 at 4:33 a.m.
Michael Underwood (right) and Ed Owen, both members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra brass quintet, perform during the new music director announcement Wednesday at the future site of the Boyle Smith Music Center in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has ended its four-year national search for a new music director by hiring the "favorite son," Geoffrey Robson.

Robson, 41, who joined the orchestra in the fall of 2008 as associate conductor and a full-time member of the violin section, will be the orchestra's eighth music director. He has been shepherding the orchestra through its interregnum since the departure of former music director and conductor Philip Mann at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Orchestra officials announced Robson's hiring at a ceremony Wednesday at the site of its planned Stella Boyle Smith Music Center at Heifer Village in Little Rock's East Village.

He was the unanimous choice of the orchestra's search committee, which consisted of members of the orchestra board staff and orchestra musicians.

Orchestra CEO Christina Littlejohn explained at the announcement that the orchestra had to first determine if it actually needed and wanted a music director in the traditional sense -- one who made top-down decisions on the orchestra's artistic path. "And we decided that, yes, we did want an inspiring conductor who could communicate with the musicians and the audience, and one who believes in Arkansas and who believes in our vision."

Board chairwoman Jan Hundley described Robson as "someone who is creative, who is respected and respectful, and is a team player ... a fundraiser and one who understands the current arts landscape, who shows a love for music and teaching, who loves Arkansas and who loves the Arkansas Symphony."

"I'm absolutely thrilled," Robson said. "What a burst of energy I feel now."

He pledged to continue to connect the orchestra to the community through relevant and innovative programming. "The ASO is inseparable from the community it serves," he explained. "This gives us our purpose, relevance and visibility."

The search was interrupted for more than 18 months as regular concerts were suspended or canceled due to the covid-19 pandemic. In that time, Robson created or assisted alternative programming to keep the musicians employed and occupied, including a series of online "Bedtime With Bach" videos that earned the orchestra national media attention and a series of short concerts for streaming and eventually in public spaces, using smaller ensembles and maintaining safe distancing between players.

Robson cited at the announcement his ability during the pandemic to be "flexible and adaptable on short notice, with whatever resources were available."

Orchestra musicians, board members and executives universally praised Robson's leadership during the pandemic and remarked on his growth as a conductor over that period.

"I don't think we would have gotten through covid if it hadn't been for Geoff," said Littlejohn, who called Robson "the unanimous hometown hero."

"He's exactly who we need as a leader. He's grown so much, and proven himself as a leader into the future."


Robson was also responsible for programming the orchestra's 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, during which a series of guest conductors essentially auditioned for the music director job.

Throughout the process, orchestra officials would not identify which guest conductors were actually candidates, only that they were people the orchestra wished to see. Four conductors who had appeared in the 2021-22 season were brought back in 2022-23 for second looks.

In the end, said Denise Compton, who headed up the search committee, the panel decided it would consider only conductors who had made two appearances on the podium -- Stephen Mulligan, associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Akiko Fujimoto, music director of the Mid-Texas Symphony in Seguin, Texas; and Andrew Crust, assistant conductor of the Vancouver Symphony -- in addition to Robson. Matthew Kraemer, who was going to make his second booking with the orchestra in May, withdrew his name from consideration and canceled his podium appearance after taking a job as music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic.

Compton said initial nominations came from members of the orchestra "family" -- musicians, board members, patrons, some of them by more than one person. A group of musicians reviewed the lists, which included hundreds of applicants, and made invitations.

The committee and the board's main consideration was who would best lead the orchestra into the future -- "We thought quite a lot about that," she said. Also factoring into the decision: the orchestra's plans to build a new music center.

The final pool went through what Compton described as "a very extensive process of interviews and reviews," and called it "quite thorough." All the candidates displayed "integrity and professionalism."

"Geoff gave a lot of energy and creativity," Compton said. "We could see a lot of things about him that were positive."

And the recommendation of the committee to the board was unanimous. "We really do have great confidence in our decision," she said. "The goal was to find the best conductor who was the best fit for the Arkansas Symphony."

Those coming in for a second look got a chance to meet with board members and patrons in social circumstances, do media interviews and give pre-concert talks. Compton said she did not believe Robson got any kind of a leg up or special treatment because he was already in place.

"Absolutely not," she said. "People knew Geoff better, that was obvious, but I don't think that was a factor." The search process, she added, was "fastidious and consistent across all the conductors we saw."

The committee as a whole felt comfortable with the thoroughness and integrity of the process, she added, and there also was no perceptible pressure to make a decision by any particular deadline. "We decided to continue until we were satisfied that we had a good fit.

"We expect a bright future, onward and upward."


Robson sees from the outset that his hiring will provide more stability, organization-wide, for artistic planning, and the chance to spend more time in rehearsal with the players. And, unlike a conductor who would be starting essentially from scratch, "I don't have to lay that groundwork."

This was not his first time in the interim position -- he spent considerable time conducting the orchestra during the transition from David Itkin, music director from 1993 to 2010, to Mann, who officially took over in the fall of 2010. He has since spent a fair amount of time on the podium, conducting many of the orchestra's pops concerts. He has, over the years, collaborated with other community organizations, including Ballet Arkansas, the Arkansas Arts Center Children's Theater, Opera in the Rock and the Chamber Music Society of Little Rock.

He served on the faculties of the University of Central Arkansas in 2013-14 and Hendrix College from 2018-21. He served for several years as the conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Robson praised the work of the search committee, which he described as "painstaking," noting that the committee went to "really admirable depths to see I received the same treatment" as the other candidates. "It was important for that to happen," he said. "It was a committed, nationwide, fair search. I think they did a great job."

Robson said he has no illusions about competing with conductors with more distinguished resumes.

"I fully recognize the unique path that I've been on," he said. "It's very unusual for an associate to be named conductor [of an orchestra] after a nationwide search."

He said among his primary goals are to grow the orchestra's audience, through some of the mechanisms he has been employing, including free neighborhood and community concerts and outdoor performances with live or recorded broadcasts.

"We're in a place where the clear priority is building our audiences," he said. "We need to engage every corner of the community."

He'll also explore doing that through both usual and unusual, and sometimes specifically relevant, repertoire. He sees, for example, a return to the orchestra performing large-scale choral works using area choirs, which the orchestra did frequently during Itkin's tenure but not as often during Mann's, and not at all since Mann left. He's looking at mixing "the great works of the orchestral canon" with "pieces that history has left behind" and new works. And we'll continue to see "some tweaks and experiments with the format of concerts."

You won't, however, see him in the orchestra's violin section any time soon. But he doesn't intend to abandon playing altogether.

"I see the violin as integral to conducting," he said. "And my love of playing chamber music won't go away. It feeds the musical soul."


Robson starts out with a five-year contract. Littlejohn would not discuss the specifics except to say his salary will be in line "with orchestras of our budget size." Since he was the unanimous choice, she said, there were no discussions with the other candidates as to what they might have received had they been hired.

The orchestra had a total of six guest conductors, all of whom were people "the orchestra wanted to see," she said. "Some of them were part of the process and some weren't."

How they rehearsed with the orchestra was one of the principal criteria, she said. Also a factor: how they handled the mix of repertoire they encountered -- "world premieres, works they had never done before, show horses vs. commissions, and how they worked with soloists."

What continues to impress her about Robson, she said: "He has been so disciplined and so focused on the music and love of music, and the love of bringing it to others. Geoff just stood out. And there's his collaborative, flexible style. I think that's what orchestras need: Love, curiosity, joy, seeing what is possible."

The orchestra will continue to bring in at least one guest conductor each season, something that started under Mann's administration. "It's healthy for orchestras to do that," Littlejohn said. "Different conductors bring different approaches. It brings a strength to the podium."


Andrew Irvin, who shares the orchestra's concertmaster position (with Kiril Laskarov), was a member of the search committee. The online "Bedtime With Bach" snippets during the pandemic were his brainchild.

He called the musicians' input "the core and crux of the decision-making process."

He also focused on Robson's "14 years of growth into the role. And during the pandemic, everybody had to grow. I'm grateful for his leadership."

Irvin is in his 20th year with the orchestra; he joined in the 2002-03 season as concertmaster.

Robson, he said, has helped the orchestra "keep in touch with our artistic past, while opening up to our artistic future."

"He's got this institutional memory; he really knows what we're doing in Arkansas, for all of Arkansas. He's already invested so much in the community."

He foresees Robson continuing to play on the orchestra's chamber music programs and also to continue teaching.

"He's so valuable in this position," Irvin said. "From every youngster who needs teaching to every audience member. He has great ears, and the hands to make it different."

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